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Making the Majors: The Transformation of Team Sports in America.

By Eric M. Leifer. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995. Pp. xiv, 378. $49.95.

Over the past three decades, economists have written enough on the economics of professional team sports to fill many volumes. Other social scientists have also begun to study sports, sometimes treating questions economists would find interesting. Sociologist Eric M. Leifer's new book, Making the Majors: The Transformation of Team Sports in America, deals with several such issues.

Organized into ten chapters, including a lengthy introduction, the book examines the history of professional baseball, football, basketball, and hockey in North America. Leifer claims the invention of major league professional sports was not inevitable. The earliest professional teams were barnstormers, travelling around to play one or two games in a town against locals. People paid to watch them out of curiosity, and to marvel at their incredible skill. But there was no basis for repeated watching--the novelty soon wore off, and the games, mostly mismatches, usually generated little suspense. When other teams became good enough to beat the professionals, interest in the barnstormers vanished quickly. Leifer cites the spectacular rise and fall of the Cincinnati Red Stockings in 1869 and 1870 as an example.

Founded in 1876, the National League solved these problems by attaching teams to cities and, in the form of the pennant race, providing fans with a reason to be interested in many games. The vesting of power in the team owners rather than the players contributed to the league's success by providing stability in team rosters. The institutions developed by the National League proved crucial in developing local loyalties among fans. Only through such loyalties, Leifer claims, could testes be sustained through losing seasons.

The National League withstood several challenges in its first few decades. Its most successful challenger proved to be the American League, established in 1901. Together, they formed what Leifer terms the early prototype for major league sports. Without radio or television, the market for major league sports was primarily local, with teams serving the demands of hometown fans.

Football, basketball, and hockey leagues attempted to follow the same formula, but without baseball's success. Early leagues in the other sports were far less stable, in part because they failed to generate significant local loyalties. Basketball and football leagues had to contend with immensely popular college versions of their sports.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the National Football League (NFL) determined that television held the key to success. Leifer says they used television to cultivate national, rather than local, publics. Because of football's innovations, Leifer says, fans in New York, Chicago, and the hinterlands all began to care about teams in distant cities. The NFL's success in cultivating a national market, and baseball's failure to follow suit, resulted in football's eclipse of baseball as America's leading sport.

Leifer fleshes out his argument with some fascinating, though not original, history of league developments. Along the way he deals with important questions usually ignored by economists. How, for instance, are tastes for professional sports determined? What impact did the early histories of each league have on its institutions, its vested interests, and its subsequent ability to react to changing market demands?

While many of the issues and claims will intrigue economists, few will find many of the book's arguments persuasive. Neither the theoretical nor the empirical work exhibit the rigor economists expect. Ad hoc speculation, rather than modeling, generates most of the book's hypotheses. For instance, in an examination of the home-field advantage in each sport--strongest in basketball, weakest in baseball--Leifer claims that expectations of the national TV audience influence a game's outcome. The mechanism by which this occurs is never explained, and absent a model, it cannot be inferred.

The empirical work also falls far short of standards in the economics literature. Most data are presented in graphical form, and many of the graphs are confusing and hard to read. The specifications, including the definitions of the dependent and independent variables, of the few regressions reported in the text are not clearly stated, but they appear to be underspecified. In most cases, coefficient estimates are reported only as points on a graph. Sometimes the coefficient values from different regressions are connected by lines. In most cases test statistics and standard errors are not reported at all. The [R.sup.2] of one regression is reported as 0.005, but the estimated coefficients, though unreported, are claimed to be significant and informative.

In the book's last chapter, Leifer speculates about the future of major league sports. He claims that future major leagues will be based on international demands. To survive and flourish, major leagues will have to abandon their attachments to cities and national publics. He advocates leagues with fewer teams, attached to multinational corporations rather than cities. The BMW Racers and the Coca-Cola Fizz, for instance, would travel the world playing each other at whatever site appeared most profitable that week. Seasons would be much shorter--Leifer pulls 48 games out of the air as the optimal season length for basketball, hockey, and baseball. He offers no justification for this prescription other than to argue that, since sports started out local, then went national, the only option for the future is to go international.

If this book has any value for economists, it is because of the questions it raises rather than the answers it provides. Those who want an introduction to the economics of sports should look elsewhere. But those well versed in the sports economics literature may find this book a useful stimulus for generating new questions to explore.

Bruce K. Johnson Centre College
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Author:Johnson, Bruce K.
Publication:Southern Economic Journal
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1996
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